Mark Turgeon lets you in at the oddest times. The Maryland men’s basketball coach is honest but polished, which means that he can cloak his truest emotions with coach speak and the balanced perspective that a long season demands. But no matter how much he covers up, he always leaves an opening.
On Sunday, after a reassuring 86-82 win over Michigan to end the Terrapins’ most irksome stretch — a two-game losing streak! Alert the RPI stalkers! — of the season, he let loose near the end of a postgame news conference that he had used to redirect any concern about his team. As much as he wanted to stay on message, he couldn’t help alluding to the struggle.
“I was as down as you can be,” Turgeon said of his spirit after Maryland’s 68-63 loss to previous Big Ten cellar dweller Minnesota on Thursday. “I can’t wait to eat. My stomach is up here growling.”
For all Turgeon had done to calm the masses, he had been in crisis management mode the past three days, skipping meals, reevaluating his tactics and meeting individually with all of his players to make sure a skid didn’t become a debacle. His delicate season-long handling of expectations had reached a pivotal point. The coach could let the dam break and commence with March urgency more than two weeks before the conference tournament begins. Or he could try to motivate and improve his players while doubling down on perspective and allowing them to continue competing with freedom and without the suffocating pressure to live up to its Final Four ability now instead of building toward an NCAA tournament run.
The Terrapins needed a kick in the tail, but they needed understanding, too. Turgeon needed to be forceful and comforting. As he often does, Turgeon took on all the stress while trying to relieve anxiety from the rest of the team.
On Sunday afternoon, after the victory over Michigan in a well-played offensive showdown, Turgeon could finally settle down, too. Fix the man a plate, please. And offer him seconds. And thirds. His appetite is back. The losing streak is over.
No, the concern never ends, especially for a team still trying to get its best player, Melo Trimble, out of a funk. Maryland isn’t ready to play for a championship today, but the reality is, it doesn’t have to. Losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota didn’t ruin the Terrapins (23-5, 11-4 Big Ten). The skid made their route to a lofty NCAA tournament seed more difficult, but there’s still enough season to make up ground there, too.
“We’re fine,” said forward Robert Carter Jr., who had 17 points and six rebounds against Michigan. “We have a lot of confidence in each other.”
That was Turgeon’s remedy: Instilling confidence in an embarrassed team after Minnesota, which was winless in the Big Ten, beat Maryland. Before adjustments, before talking about rebounding and offensive efficiency and maintaining a defensive edge, Turgeon said he needed to focus on “our minds more than anything.” And the coach needed to stick with what has worked all season: A vision of March, to make sure his team peaks at the right time.
He didn’t want to force the issue, even after two losses. Maryland didn’t need to play its best basketball because Coach was mad. It needed to take another step toward playing its best basketball by mid-March. There’s a subtle difference that Turgeon refuses to ignore.
“I just told the guys that we are a heck of a basketball team,” Turgeon said. “We are 23-5. Let’s don’t forget who we are, what we are about. A lot of coaches would love to be 23-5 and have the players that we have. I just try to be real positive. I just talked to them and told them that I love them, believe in them, and that we are going to be fine.”
They are fine, for now. The Terps won’t be ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll this week, not after losing at Minnesota. And currently they look more like a No. 4 NCAA seed than a No. 2 on paper. But two of their final three regular season games are big-time road tests (Purdue, Indiana) that will further define just how good they are. Between those games and the Big Ten tournament, there are opportunities for Maryland to climb to a No. 1 seed (if it doesn’t lose again) or even fall to a No. 5.
What does that make the Terrapins? Just like every other contender in this crazy men’s college basketball season. This isn’t about artistry and dominance. It’s about surviving amid all the balance.
As frustration deferred to positivity and then perspective, Turgeon left one final thought before Sunday’s game with a basketball team eager to expunge the memory of consecutive losses.
“Our path to success is through our defense,” Turgeon told his players.
And then they had to beat Michigan with their offense.
“It’s funny,” Turgeon said, shaking his head.
It’s symbolic. Even as Turgeon helps this team mold an identity, the path is uncertain. The expectations don’t guarantee Maryland anything, and the daily scrutiny of whether the Terrapins are “there” yet provides few clues.
At times, they’re so good that they can build a 16-point first-half lead. And then they can lose it all. They can shoot 54.4 percent for an entire game — and commit 18 turnovers, too. They can allow 13 three-pointers and a frustrating number of layups to John Beilein’s Michigan team — and still play good defense when it matters most.
Maryland remains too streaky. It needs to find a way for all of its top players to perform well at the same time. It needs better consistency off the bench and to show more toughness against teams with similar size. But if you look at the Terps when they’re playing their best and wonder why they can’t do it all the time, well, that’s not the best way to view them. No team plays its best for 40 minutes. But the best teams keep raising their floor. It’s about flaw mitigation, managing the lulls so that the spurts of greatness are even more deadly.
“We’ve had spurts of unbelievable basketball,” said forward Jake Layman, who had 16 points Sunday.
They’ve had a smidgeon of disaster, too. Now they know that they’re capable of recovery. All it takes is a little perspective.
And an empty, growling stomach.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.